Artifacts Used by Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers Found in Utah

Researchers discovered the remains of a mid-19th century house, a centuries-old Chinese coin and other traces of the short-lived town of Terrace

Chinese railroad workers near the Secret Town Trestle in Placer County, California, around 1869
Chinese railroad workers near the Secret Town Trestle in Placer County, California, around 1869 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists in Utah have unearthed artifacts from a long-abandoned town once populated by Chinese workers who helped build the first transcontinental railroad in the mid-19th century. Along with the remains of a building that housed some of the workers, the team found porcelain bowls, a medicine bottle, tools for writing Chinese characters, and a 17th-century coin that was probably minted in China and kept as a good luck charm, reports Erin Cox for Fox 13.

“The archaeology, the stuff, the trash is what is left behind and it is what can really tell us the life stories of these immigrants,” says Chris Merritt of the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, which led the project.

During construction of the 1,776-mile railroad, about 500 people lived in Terrace. Today, a sign marking the spot where the town once stood and scattered bricks and debris are almost all that’s left of it aboveground. 

A team of archaeologists and volunteers began investigating the site last fall, reports Carter Williams for KSL.com. The group spotted timbers sticking out of sand dunes and, after digging below the sand, discovered the floorboards of a house that was probably built in 1869 or 1870. Charcoal indicated that the building itself burned down—a common occurrence after the short-lived town was abandoned in the early 20th century. This year, the researchers returned to investigate further.

Artifacts Used by Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers Found in Utah
Few traces of Terrace, Utah—a town once home to about 500 people—survive today. astronomy_blog via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“This is the first fully excavated Chinese home on the transcontinental railroad regardless of state,” Merritt tells KSL.com. “That’s a pretty exciting data point. It really helps us understand the technology they were using to build it with, the materials and also the style.”

The house was higher than it was wide and probably housed multiple workers. The boards used in its construction were likely surplus from railroad materials. 

Historical records show that Terrace once held two hotels, five saloons and other businesses. But limited documentation related to the town’s Chinese population survives. The excavation unearthed signs of a Chinese business located on Main Street that wasn’t listed in any known records. Researchers also discovered evidence of some level of segregation. Materials evidently left by Chinese residents, including peanut shells, melon seeds and Chinese dates, were found in different areas than items used by other residents of the town.

“We’ve been, in my family, searching for this history since I’ve been here, since I was 5 years old,” Anna Eng, whose great-grandfather worked on the railroad, tells Fox 13. “... Really to understand what our great-grandfathers lived through, what they experienced, is incredible.”

Eng adds that her great-grandfather endured terrible conditions on the job and died years later in an avalanche.

Artifacts Used by Chinese Transcontinental Railroad Workers Found in Utah
Chinese workers constructed a building in the town out of surplus materials from the railroad's construction. Utah Division of State History

Chinese workers began arriving in the United States in large numbers during the California Gold Rush, which spanned 1848 to 1855, wrote Lesley Kennedy for History.com in 2019. Despite widespread anti-immigrant and anti-Asian sentiment, a lack of willing white workers pushed railroad companies to hire Chinese crews. By 1867, about 90 percent of workers on the Central Pacific Railroad—the arm of the transcontinental railroad that stretched from California to Utah—were Chinese.

“Chinese [workers] received 30 [to] 50 percent lower wages than [white workers] for the same job, and they had to pay for their own foodstuffs,” Stanford historian Gordon Chang told History.com. “They also had the most difficult and dangerous work, including tunneling and the use of explosives.”

Historical accounts have frequently minimized the contribution of Chinese workers on the railroad, but Utah’s yearlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s completion in 2019 included acknowledgements of these immigrants’ roles, as Jesse Katz reported for Smithsonian magazine at the time. An installation marking the same milestone at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History showed off artifacts used by workers, such as a soy sauce jug and chopsticks

Officials in Utah are now working to protect the Terrace site from vandalism. They plan to inform the public about the site’s significance to discourage people from picking up or removing artifacts.